The art of giving holiday presents can be a tricky business. So before you buy that expensive wine for a co-worker or cashmere sweater for a bridge partner, make sure you’re versed in your holiday gift-giving etiquette.
“When you get a gift from someone, you feel compelled to give a gift in return, and sometimes that can be awkward,” said etiquette expert Vicky Oliver, author of “301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions.” “The next thing you know you’re buying a gift for everybody.”
The problem can involve any number of scenarios with family, friends or co-workers. Oliver suggests trying to convince the group in question to implement a Secret Santa policy. “It’s economical and creative and a great way to swap gifts without feeling the pressure to buy for everyone,” she said.
But what about those two supremely awkward moments: You buy a gift for someone who doesn’t have one for you, or you are the empty-handed recipient?
For the former scenario, Dr. David Reiss, a San Diego-based psychiatrist, said the most important thing to do is to hide your disappointment at not getting a present in return.
“You don’t want to say something that’s so superficial that it looks like you’re condescending,” Reiss said. “The best way to handle this is to sort of ignore it, as if you weren’t expecting anything at all. Because any statement you make, such as, ‘Don’t feel bad about this,’ is implying the person should feel bad about it.”
For the person who receives the gift, yet has nothing to offer in return, behaving graciously can be a gift all its own, Reiss said.
“Be legitimately appreciative,” Reiss said. “If it’s a matter where you really can’t afford it, it’s best not to go into too many personal details. Just say, ‘I really appreciate this.’ Let them know you’re grateful for the gesture.”
If finances aren’t an issue, bending the truth can also be acceptable, Oliver said. “If someone gives you a gift, and you don’t have one for them, but you really like that person and would consider returning the favor, I would use a little white lie and say, ‘I left yours at home.’”
Here are more tips for giving and receiving gifts during the holiday season:
Keep a secret stash. “If you are really organized, have a secret stash of small gifts so if someone gives you something, then you can pull it out,” Oliver said. “This is particularly helpful at the office … things like movie tickets, or a small gift card … (to) places everyone likes.”
Be discreet. If you’re not dispensing gifts to the entire group, be sure you don’t have an audience when you’re giving a gift. “Don’t leave something on a person’s chair at work if they aren’t there, and try not to hand a gift to someone if others are going to see you,” Oliver said. “I don’t think you can trust other people to be discreet on your behalf. You need to be discreet on your own behalf.”
Remember, it’s not a contest. “If someone is keeping score on who gives what and on how much is spent, there’s no way you will satisfy them,” Reiss said. “They’re already competing with you, so it’s best not to take it too seriously. You’ll probably never make them happy, because this is their thing, so it’s best to let them do their thing. And if they’re obviously showing disappointment, just don’t acknowledge it — ignore it.”
Don’t overdo it. This is especially relevant in the workplace. “Sometimes, kissing up with a really expensive present can really work against somebody,” Oliver said. “Usually people do this with a boss or superior, and I think, even if the boss likes it, your co-workers don’t. (You shouldn’t) be getting gifts for people as a job-saving strategy; you’re doing it because it’s that time of year. That should be the motivating drive.”